I’d love to share a short piece of music I just made titled “Songs of Aphrodite.”
You are welcome to just enjoy it, or if you would like an excruciatingly detailed explanation, including how it relates to Sappho and some music theory, read on!
It is written in the Locrian mode, also known as the Greek Mixolydian mode (not to be confused with the modern Mixolydian mode, which is completely different… wait, that’s very confusing in itself). As you probably know, a mode is a scale that progresses with set whole and half notes. You are probably familiar with the modern major mode that sounds happy (the Happy Birthday to You song) and minor modes that sound sad (the House of the Rising Sun). The Locrian mode is considered a minor mode, but to me it sounds both sad and happy and also full of Mystery. To help you get a sense of what the Locrian mode sounds like, here is The Water Is Wide in its usual major mode:
Here it is in played it in Locrian mode:
The Locrian mode was invented by Sappho, the ancient Greek poet who led a circle of women poets (it may have been a school) and was devoted to Aphrodite. Her poetry was written to be sung, but no one knows what the melodies were. So, out of curiosity, I decided to write some music in the Locrian mode and use electronic instruments that may sound something like the lyres and drums that may have accompanied Sappho’s songs.
As I kept going, the piece evolved into trying to evoke a performance by Sappho and her poets of songs to Aphrodite. I certainly don’t claim to know what Sappho’s songs sounded like, so it’s really just a work of imagination. So, Imagine yourself sitting in an amphitheater in Lesbos, where she lived. You hear Sappho and her poets approach singing and playing a lyre and drums. That’s the first section, which is in the Locrian mode. They enter the amphitheater and take their places for the second section, which is the poets singing. They are younger than Sappho and sing in a major mode, denoting their more carefree and certain view of life. Their song brings Aphrodite, whose response is the next section which is supposed to sound kind of deity-like and show that Her presence creates an epiphany in Sappho and the poets. Sappho responds with her lyre and drums in a short song that is slower and more resolute, expressing the wisdom of her life experience. The poets then repeat Sappho’s original Locrian mode song with their voices in celebration of the lessons about Aphrodite and life that Sappho has taught them. Finally, Sappho, the poets, and Aphrodite all sing together in a song that has elements of both the Locrian and major modes, showing that they have all joined their elder wisdom, youthful joie de vivre, and goddessy divinity into a unity of beauty.
The piece could also be seen as an allegory of modern people discovering female divinity. First we have the ancient goddess cultures re-arising from silence as their first song in the ancient mode grows stronger. Then the modern people sing in their major mode with amazement and joy at discovering the power of the goddesses and their stories to bring wholeness to themselves and the planet. The goddesses respond by speaking to modern people in their divine voices to show that they are always here for us followed by a new song, still in the ancient Locrian mode, to reflect that they still have much to say to us. The 21st century people sing their own version of the first ancient song to explore what guidance the goddesses have for us. Finally, the ancient, the modern, and the divine all sing together to bring into being a future world that reflects the best of both the ancient and contemporary.
I wonder if maybe you don’t hear something completely different when you listen to it. That’s the joy of music – one piece of music can mean so many things to people. What do you hear?
Photo of bust of Sappho: Capitoline Museums, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Woman playing lyre on Greek vase: Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons